Poetry Friday: Sharon Olds looks at 1937

I depart slightly from convention this weekend, to give you a poem about 1937 instead of a poem from 1937. I do this for two reasons: first, unlike 1936, 1937 is a year not very filled with great poetry to choose from (as far as I have yet seen), and second, I will be in 1937 for a long time (thanks to the length of Gone With the Wind) and I need to pace myself. Besides all that, this is a poem about May, about college students in springtime and graduation and all that entails, and given the time of year and where I work, it feels particularly appropriate. This is a poem by the brilliant Sharon Olds, entitled “I Go Back to May 1937”:

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Olds at her best captures the unstoppable motion of emotion, the rush of feelings that overcomes us when we feel really strongly about something, and it’s no different here. The poem builds from a very simple and slowly-paced depiction of an image—two college students in love in May, in love with May perhaps—into the restless, almost frantic tumble of words as Olds both reaches to tear them apart out of pity and to smash them together in order to create herself. It’s a remarkable poem, because it does so many things well. First, the deep immersion in the physical details of a scene—the tiny bricks, the open wrought-iron gate—but then more powerfully the descent into the abstract world of the psyche, where these two injured young people are going to damage each other brutally. The whole poem is suffused with that violence, from the way the tiles look like blood behind the young man’s head all the way to Olds’s penultimate act as she smashes them together to make fire. The echoes of Prometheus float through the poem, and it does seem in the final moments as though Olds is willing to consign her parents to Promethean levels of torment in order to be born from that crucible.

That’s the real power in the poem, I think—the moment that Olds can’t do it, can’t stop them, can’t avert disaster and pain for two people she loves, because she wants to live. It would be easy to dismiss this as fantasy because none of us can do this, walking backwards in time and having the choice to give ourselves life or non-existence. But there are powerful ways in which we face this choice throughout our lives: ways in which a future for us will only be real if we act for ourselves and not for others. Is Olds right to make the choice she does—is the tragedy of their marriage redeemed because it creates her, and because she is willing to tell their story? Or is it foolish to talk about redemption in this context? Olds’s world in this poem seems in some ways detached from that idea: it is a place of pain and of passion, but not of hope.

It’s a beautiful poem—the way she sees her parents as they must once have been, the way she holds them up with her words tenderly, compassionately, for a moment before she realizes there are lengths to which she cannot go. But it also depicts great pain—certainly the restraint in phrases like “you are going to do bad things to children” sucks out my breath. What will they do to you, Sharon? And what, for the sake of living, are you willing into being by letting them come together? It freezes my blood.

We can see in it, if we like, an acceptance of the free will, since Olds’s decision not to intervene seems like the act of a god who will not alter the courses chosen by mortals, however foolish. Although Olds’s action, then, in dashing them together seems to undercut that message, as though Olds is taking responsibility for their relationship now, and its outcomes, for her own sake. The truest thing I can say, I think, as a reader still finding all the corners of this poem, is that it is very large. Olds has given us, in a brief poem, an immense space in which to imagine: she does not make simple a marriage and a family that are clearly complicated. What that image does for me I can hardly say, and I’m curious what it does for you: I hope you’ll share thoughts and reactions if any arise.

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